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Zoning Panel Endorses Fuel Depot; Lebanon Board OKs Request For Liquid Natural Gas Site

Lebanon — A developer proposing to build a liquefied natural gas depot behind the bus station on Etna Road passed a critical hurdle this week when the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment approved two variances.

The depot would receive liquefied natural gas via truck and then convert it to compressed gas for distribution to area businesses via pipeline. The variances allow the compression facility as well as a fueling station intended for fleet vehicles and buses.

“This first step is very, very big and very encouraging,” said the project’s developer Jay Campion in a phone interview Tuesday.

At Monday’s hearing where the board voted 4-0 to grant the variances, Campion shared letters of support for his proposal from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, the Lebanon School District and Hypertherm, which would be potential customers.

Campion said trucking in the fuel is the only way businesses in the Upper Valley can “really benefit from burning natural gas,” which is an alternative to fuel oil and propane. The latest fuel prices made available by New Hampshire’s Office of Energy and Planning indicate that natural gas costs approximately $16 per million British Thermal Units, while propane costs $42 per million BTUs and fuel oil $27.

The project still needs approval from the city’s Planning Board and the state’s Public Utilities Commission.

Campion’s attorney Brad Atwood said at Monday’s hearing there is no zoning district in Lebanon that would permit bulk natural gas storage. The city, he said, did not consider the possibility of such a facility when the zoning regulations were adopted or subsequently amended and that the purpose of a variance is to accommodate uses that were not contemplated previously.

During deliberation, the board determined that granting the variances would not be contrary to the public interest, would observe the spirit of the ordinance, make sure that justice is done, ensure that the values of surrounding properties would not be diminished and would protect the applicant from unnecessary hardship.

Board member Dan Nash expressed concern that granting the variances and allowing a “new use is akin to legislating,” but described Campion’s project as a “great economic interest.”

“I don’t see how this use would be any more alien (than permitted uses in the light industrial district),” said Nash. “Natural gas is not going to contaminate the environment.”

Terry Moodie of Newport, N.H., who owns an Etna Road residence that abuts Campion’s 182-acres to the northwest, spoke in opposition to the proposal.

Moodie said he doubted the depot would be as hidden from view as Campion’s application suggested and that truck traffic could pose a problem. He also voiced concerns about effects on wildlife and wetlands in the area.

In response to statements made by Moodie and other neighboring residents, Campion said “that when things are completed they’ll experience very little of what they fear.”

He said that the entrance to his property is off of North Labombard Road, not Etna Road where most residences are located.

He also said that Casella Waste Systems stores dumpsters on the site right now, creating more truck traffic than the estimated 10 trucks per week that would make liquid natural gas deliveries.

Traffic, however, was not in the Zoning Board’s purview Monday night. The project’s effects on traffic, wetlands and wildlife are Planning Board concerns, not zoning issues.

Zoning Board member Larry Leclair opted to abstain from Monday’s vote because he also sits on the Planning Board, which will be tasked with reviewing the site plan for Campion’s project.

Before stating his intention to abstain, however, Leclair made his opinion clear.

“I don’t think (the project) is in the best interest of the City of Lebanon,” he said, pointing to the project’s potential impact on wetlands. “I don’t think its something that we should do.”

At a previous Zoning Board meeting, City Councilor Nicole Cormen suggested that more appropriate districts for bulk natural gas storage would be the heavy industrial district or industrial-rail district where bulk storage of petroleum and liquid propane is permitted by special exception, not in the light industrial district where Campion’s property lies.

In an interview on Tuesday, Lebanon Fire Chief Chris Christopolous Jr. said that natural gas poses fewer risks than other flammable gases because it acts differently.

Natural gas is lighter than air, which means should it leak from a storage tank it would rise, not sink as propane would.

“The typical impact area (is a) lot smaller than propane,” he said.

He expressed some concerns about an increase in traffic in the busy Route 120 corridor.

“The more stuff we put on the road, the more likely we’re going to have an accident,” he said.

Christopolous said he would offer more comments during the Planning Board’s site review; when more detailed plans are available.

On Monday night, Interim Zoning Administrator David Brooks told the Zoning Board that members would need to describe special circumstances of Campion’s property that would support the hardship condition for a variance.

At its previous meeting, the board declined to grant a request for a variance to convert the historic Wood House on South Park Street to a multifamily apartment building because the board determined the applicant failed to demonstrate such a hardship.

Board Vice Chairman William Koppenheffer described his thinking in a phone interview Tuesday.

He said the distinction between the Wood request and the Campion request was that the Wood could own an apartment building elsewhere in the city, while no zone in the city allowed natural gas storage or distribution.

He said Campion faced a hardship in the fact that the city did not provide for the type of facility he is trying to build.

“We are providing for something that the zoning ordinance overlooked,” said Koppenheffer.

The location Campion chose made sense because it was in proximity to the businesses he plans to serve, said Koppenheffer.

The 182-acre size of the parcel means that Campion will be able to provide a sufficient buffer between the natural gas depot and abutters, he said.

Campion must apply to New Hampshire’s Public Utilities Commission for permission to operate a public utility. The NHPUC sets rates, assesses the quality of service, finances, accounting and safety.

Campion said he continues to reach out to potential customers in order to more clearly define the scale of the project. He said he aims to begin by installing a pipeline to transport gas to Centerra Business Park.

“I am to be permitted to do this by the city (and) now it’s a matter of how,” he said.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.